Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Edward Abbey at Arches National Park, Utah 1985
Photo Courtesy Of Clarke Cartwright Abbey
Edward Abbey was a writer and wilderness advocate who lived most of his life in the American Southwest. His book Desert Solitaire (Ballantine), about his experiences as a Utah park ranger, earned comparisons to Thoreau’s Walden, but Abbey is best known for the novel The Monkeywrench Gang (Harper Perennial Modern Classics), in which a band of outlaw environmentalists sabotage commercial development projects. (The book is credited with inspiring similar tactics among real-life activists.)
Abbey was also a prolific correspondent who started each day at the typewriter by dashing off missives to friends, editors, critics, fans, and fellow authors. His postcards and letters were occasionally rude, often funny, and never compromising. The best of them have been published in the new book Postcards from Ed (Milkweed Editions), edited by David Petersen.
Abbey died in 1989, at the age of sixty-two. “Sincerely, Edward Abbey” is excerpted from Postcards from Ed. © 2006 by Clarke Abbey and David Petersen. It appears here by permission of Milkweed Editions (www.milkweed.org). Only Abbey’s side of the correspondence is presented, and his idiosyncratic punctuation, capitalization, and spelling have been preserved.
George Sessions, Philosophy Professor,
Sierra College, California
30 August 1979
Sorry your friend [Bill] Devall and you couldn’t come. Since you didn’t, I shall pass on a few remarks via typewriter.
As I said, I think the new Eco-Philosophy contains many interesting, important and daring ideas. But I have three quibbles:
1. I dislike the pejorative term “shallow environmentalism,” and the pretentious term “deep ecology.” It is vital that we avoid any hint of moral superiority in our dealings with one another in the environmental movement; if it developed into factionalism it would destroy us, as factionalism has destroyed so many other progressive movements in America. E.g., I was quite disappointed by Stewart Brand’s silly attack on the Sierra Club (promptly publicized by Esquire Magazine and other Shithead publications) because some Sierra Clubber in San Francisco obstructed his plans for a Co-Evolution fund-raising picnic on public parklands.
If we must have labels, why not something like “eco-activists” and “eco-philosophers.” Each implies the other anyway, and most of us are, or try to be, something of both. While I grant the intellectual value of providing environmentalism with a sound philosophical basis, the people that I actually most admire are those who put their bodies where their minds are — i.e., Mark Dubois, and patient tireless organizers like David Brower, and the field reps of the various conservation organizations, the people who confront and deal directly with politicians, industrialists, the media. I think it far more important to save one square mile of wilderness, anywhere, by any means, than to produce another book on the subject.
I am weary of the old and tiresome and banal question “Why save the wilderness?” The important and difficult question is “How? How save the wilderness?” I am not much concerned with the state of the world a thousand years from now, for in that long-range view I am an optimist: I think that the greed and stupidity of industrial culture will save us from ourselves by self-destruction. What I am concerned about is the world my children will have to live in, and maybe, if my children ever get around to it, the world of my grandchildren.
2. One of these days the Orientalizers will have to face the question of why the homelands of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and Zen — namely, India, China, Japan — are also the most abused, ravaged, insulted, overpopulated and desperate lands on planet earth.
Why? I have my theories about it, of course, implied by things I’ve written elsewhere; but how do you and Devall and Gary Snyder explain it? If you’re going to make your theories cohere with fact, you’ve got to do some thinking about the real role of any large-scale, institutional religion in human life and the life of the planet.
In my view, the Oriental religions are no better than Christianity (itself of Oriental origin, of course) or Islam; all of them tend to divorce men and women from the earth, from other forms of life, by their mystical emphasis upon the general, the abstract, the invisible, and by their psychological tendency, in prayer and meditation, to turn the mind inward, toward self-love, self-importance, self-obsession. Salvation. Satori. Union with God, union with the All-Source, union with The One. (Which one? my daughter Suzi, age eleven, says — bless her native common sense.) Of course, the devotees of these mystical rites claim the opposite — that they are engaged in self-transcendence. I think they delude themselves; rather than escaping the self, they are wallowing, luxuriating, in a most enormous vanity. The same is true of all the many lesser cults now flourishing, like fungi in a bog, among us bored and idle Americans — EST, for example, and Esalen, and TM, and psychoanalysis, and anal-analysis, and good God! all the many other sickly little superstitions that pollute the psychic atmosphere.
(However, I tell myself . . . it’s all part of the carnival. All part of the human comedy. These things have always been with us and always will. Each to his fate, predetermined (perhaps) by his character. I must confess that I often tire of my own role as the sneering buzzard on the dead tree. There are times when I envy those with the freedom to hurl themselves into the mob, to lose themselves in the flood of life. Ideally, I suppose, we should be able to enjoy every form of experience. Including suffering? even torture? even slavery?)
Paralyzing philosophy. But always entertaining.
Action, there’s the thing. Action! When I grow sick with the buzzing of the brain, I like to go climb a rock. Cut down a billboard. Disable a bulldozer. (Eine kleine Nachtwerke) Climb a mountain. Run a rapid. Pursue a woman. Etc.
Enough of these trivial asides. On to Quibble #3:
3. Animal egalitarianism. If all animals are equal, then we humans, obviously, are no better than any other animals. Being no better, we cannot be expected to behave any better. Therefore, it is perfectly logical, as well as natural, that we do as others do — expand to the limits of our range, exterminate competitors, multiply our numbers well beyond the carrying capacity of our territory, submit to mass die-offs periodically, and so on. On the other hand, if we demand of ourselves that we behave rationally, display tolerance and even love for all other forms of life, then it would seem to follow that we are asking of humans a moral sensitivity unknown to lesser — excuse me! — other animals.
Having raised the question, I think I see the answer. In demanding that humans behave with justice, tolerance, reason, love toward other forms of life, we are doing no more than demanding that humans be human — that is, be true to the best aspects of human nature.
Humans being human, therefore, cannot consider themselves morally superior to, say, bears being bear-like, eagles being eagle-like, etc. No doubt Spinoza had much to say about this. Despite his disdain for nonhuman forms of life.
Let beings be, says Heidegger. Very good. Be true to the earth, says Nietzsche. I like that. Death is the most exciting form of life! said General George Patton. Well no, that doesn’t fit here. Give your heart to the hawks, said my favorite American poet — after Whitman. How about a similar nifty slogan from Spinoza? Can you offer us one, George?
I liked Devall’s review of Person/Planet. Very much to the point. But [I] think, in his letter to NMA [Not Man Apart], that he must have missed a few chapters in my own book. In “Science w/a Human Face” and “Conscience of the Conqueror,” he will find that I attempt to deal directly with some of the questions that he is most concerned with.
And yes, I do distrust mysticism. I regard it as too easy a way out. Whenever I find myself sliding into mysticism in my writing — I never do it in my feeling and seeing — I know that my mind is relaxing, taking the easy way around a hard pitch of thought. Just as those who casually throw in the word “God” think that they are answering questions which may very well have no answer. Not all questions can be answered. I think that Carl Sagan is a bit naive in his scientific optimism, just as those who call themselves mystics are naive in identifying their personal inner visions with universal reality.
Random thoughts. No more for the time being. Please continue to send me the Eco-Philosophy newsletter. And you are welcome, if you wish, to print parts of my letters, or parts of my books, in that newsletter. I would be honored, and most interested in reading the reaction of others to the words of an anti-metaphysical metaphysician. Among metaphysicians, I would prefer to be a G.P. — a general practitioner.
14 December 1981
Herewith an answer to your queries:
Q 1: I’ve done long solo hikes before, mainly in Utah, northern Arizona, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, but never thru the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. So, I did it because I enjoy that sort of thing, and because I wanted to see some new country, intimately, as can only be done on foot, through direct personal engagement with sand, stone, sun, space, moon, stars, craggy hills and those wonderful beautiful isolated waterholes that always turned out to have water (thank God!) when I got there.
Walking is the only form of transportation in which a man proceeds erect — like a man — on his own legs, under his own power. There is immense satisfaction in that. All other modes of transport require sitting down, which I find tiresome. Traveling by horse is the next best thing, and I’ve done plenty of that too: for two years, as a ranger on the Whittell Wildlife Preserve near Aravaipa Canyon, AZ, I was in charge of and responsible for a string of twelve saddle horses, and did most of my patrolling on horseback, but unlike some people we’ve heard of, I never feel in love with a horse. (Either end.)
Q 2: Wolf Hole is an actual place, a ghost town on the Arizona Strip north of Grand Canyon. I own a small place near there, under the Vermilion Cliffs, and next summer my wife Clarke and I are going to build a house there, a house of stone and logs, with ramada and corral and a hay shed; will keep us busy and out of trouble for the next few years, I imagine. There’s a spring on the place, and enough water and forage for two grownups, several children and a couple of horses.
And oh yes, I am not and never will be a cowboy. A cowboy spends most of his life studying the hind end of a cow; that does not interest me much.
Q 3: I’ve been married five times and have three children. My sons are in college in California and New York; my daughter Susie, thirteen, lives with me, most of the time now, though she was mostly raised by her grandmother (my former mother-in-law) after the death of Susie’s mother eleven yrs ago. Leukemia killed her at age twenty-eight. Grandmother and I are good friends; she lives in Tucson.
Q 4: We have a small two-bedroom adobe-brick house in the open desert a few miles out of Tucson. Quite modest: no swimming pool, no horses, no tennis court, no TV, no home computer, no microwave oven, no close neighbors. We came here three years ago (from Moab, Utah) so that my wife could finish college; we’ll be leaving in a year or so. We heat with wood, cool with a swamp cooler and generally spend the summers on a Forest Service fire lookout up in the mts.
Q 5, 6, 7, 8, 9: I am pro-marriage, pro-family, pro-life, and pro-love, esp romantic love, yes. I also believe absolutely in Negative Population Growth and don’t intend to have any more kids, except maybe one or two with my new and final wife.
Q 10: When I’m writing a book I pack a lunchbox every morning, retire to my shack down by the wash and hide for four or five hours. Between books I take vacations that tend to linger on for months. Indolence-and-melancholy then becomes my major vice, until I get back to work. A writer must be hard to live with: when not working he is miserable, and when he is working he is obsessed. Or so it is with me. Thus my writing life consists of spells of languor alternating with fits and spasms of mad typing. At all times, though, I keep a journal, a record book, and most everything begins in the form of notes scribbled down on the pages of that journal. Am now halfway thru volume XVII.
Q 11: No. . . .
Q 12: Yes, my female characters are based upon, or drawn from, women I have known, although I have never attempted a portrait of anybody, female or male. And yes, I am most strongly attracted to women who combine beauty with intelligence, sweetness with strength — in a word, character. Most women I have known, and loved, have seemed to me superior to men in the essential way: morally. They are simply nicer, better, gentler humans than men. I hope they stay that way. I think they are a different race, and sometimes wonder that we men can even interbreed with them. I am against androgynes and androgyny. Men and women really are deeply different, and it is that difference which creates the tension and delight. Without it humankind would be no more interesting than beef cattle, or factory chickens, or ants and bees.
Thus I must also oppose the Beehive Society now being imposed on us by the new technological military industrial planetary superstate. Down with the State! Up with community! Long live anarchy!
(Which reminds me of something you said Norman Mailer said, that he now believes in “order” (undefined). I hope that I never become rich and fat, if the chief result is to make one talk as fat rich men have always talked.)
Q 13: Technique: I imagine that I’ve been influenced by the classic writers of England and America; but I also admire, very much, Rabelais and Villon, Lao-Tse and Job and Ecclesiastes, Tolstoy, Chekov and Andreyev.
Q 14: “If I came into a lot of money . . . ?” I have a lot more money than I need right now. By the standards of my old farmer-logger father, I am a rich man (at the moment). I can make a decent living as a fire lookout, $5,000–6,000 a year. So I write mainly for the fun of it, the hell of it, the duty of it. I enjoy writing and will probly be a scribbler on my dying day, sprawled on some stony trail halfway between two dry waterholes.
Q 15: How become a writer? Naturally.
Q 16: Should a writer have a social purpose? Any honest writer is bound to become a critic of the society he lives in, and sometimes, like Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut or Leo Tolstoy or François Rabelais, a very harsh critic indeed. The others are sycophants, courtiers, servitors, entertainers. Shakespeare was a sycophant; however, he was and is also a very good poet, and so we continue to read him.
Q 17: Like most writers, I feel that my latest work (Good News, and the forthcoming Down the River) is my best. I also feel that my best work still lies ahead — the FAT MASTERPIECE. Otherwise, why keep on with this lunatic art? Would rather be a good banjo player than a great but played-out novelist.
Q 18: When I’m writing I sweat a lot. But not blood. It’s really a form of play, this writing of books, and if the reviewers, esp those literal-minded androgynes in New York, ever took a close look at my books they would find that they consist mostly of play. Play! for Christ’s sake!
Well, enough of this frivolity, I could drivel on at the typewriter for days doing this, it’s so easy and so much fun. Must now get to work. You should be getting an advance copy of Down the River in about a week; I hope you can read it before you complete your article. And please send me an advance copy of it — I will not attempt to censor you in any way but would like an opportunity to suggest changes if I think you’ve got something seriously wrong.
Best regards, Ed
Jim Harrison, Lake Leelanau, Michigan
6 June 1985
Just recently read Sun Dog and cannot forbear making a few comments, tho’ I know I shouldn’t do this.
First, I admire, more than ever, the power and grace of your style, the vivid rendering of the physical scene — you manage to make even Michigan sound like a land of splendor and mystery.
But why for godsake why did you have to make the hero of your book this goddamn Bechtel Corporation type, this sleazy asshole of a construction engineer who flies (first class, always) around the world building more and more useless, destructive, ugly and wasteful dams? Why?
These people are the worst vermin in modern society; they are parasites; they do more damage than the nuclear bomb builders. Surely by now you’ve read about the effects of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, for example: the flooding of ancient homelands and temples, the downstream ruin of the fishing and farming communities in the Nile Delta, the schistosomiasis that infests the irrigation canals, all this to generate electrical power to glorify the already swollen power of a few militaristic oligarchs who run things in that miserable country. The dam doesn’t solve anything; population growth among those benighted A-rabs has already outstripped the limited agricultural benefits of the dam.
As with Aswan, so elsewhere: in the Amazon, in the Zambezi, in North America; lands destroyed, communities ruined, ancient and beautiful networks of life submerged, to create huge stagnant playgrounds for the speedboat tourist and motorboat fisherman and suchlike scum. All for the sake of Power. POWER! P O W E R!
Good God, Jim, there are terrible things going on in the world today. Why are writers like you and McGuane so afraid to stick your necks out, to touch anything controversial, difficult, dangerous? Why toady to the rich and powerful? You don’t need them. Why pander to the East Coast literati? You don’t need them either. (The best publisher in the country today is North Point Press in Berkeley.)
No more YUPPIE heroes. Please.
Yours fraternally, Edward Abbey
12 February 1986
Dear Ms Shute:
Thinking about your request for suggestions on great four-wheel-drive trips, I find that I cannot really help you much. There were some good ones: down Baja California before the Mexicans paved the road; from coast to coast through central Australia; from Algiers to Capetown in Africa; and into the many odd corners of the Great American Desert in our own Southwest.
But now I find that I am weary of such adventures. Not because I’m sinking deeper and deeper into my Late Middle Age — arthritic joints make mechanical travel more tempting, not less — but because the Jeep, the Blazer, the Bronco, the Land Cruiser, the Ram and all their many four-by-four cousins have become a plague upon the land.
The ideal off-road journey? I’ll tell you: under water. I would like to see every four-by-four on earth, every three-wheeler, every dirt bike, trail bike and Big Foot truck driven straight into the Marianas Trench, three thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and parked there — left there — for the duration.
For the duration of what? For the duration of this techno-industrial-commercial slime-mold that is transforming our planet into one vast battleground of Cretins against Nature. With the Cretins winning.
What’s wrong with the horse? Or the burro? Or the bicycle? Or even, God help us, the human foot? Why should not Americans especially learn to walk again? There is this to be said for walking: it is the one method of human locomotion by which a man or woman proceeds erect, upright, proud and independent, not squatting on the haunches like a frog.
Little boys love machines. Grown-up men and women like to walk.
Sincerely, Edward Abbey
Moab Times-Intelligencer, Utah
Please allow me to respond to critics of my recent letter, etc. In return I promise to shut up forever on the subject of the Sacred Cow and kindred matters. At least in the vicinity of Moab.
In regard to the beef rancher and his cow, I must stand by my original statement: the beef cow on our public lands is a public nuisance. Worse, beef cattle eat up forage and browse which could be used to support a much larger population of elk (especially elk) as well as mule deer, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope. And buffalo. Everyone who cares about hunting should ponder this fact. And everyone I’ve talked to about it agrees with me — in private. Beef ranching on our public lands is a taxpayer-supported industry whose time has come and gone. Let’s give it a decent Christian burial and be done with it.
As to the charge that I am a cranky old man, I plead guilty. Born in 1927, I am therefore fifty-nine years old at this point in time. Tragic but true. That’s what happens when you keep hanging around. And if I seem cranky it’s because I first came to the canyon country in 1949 when it was still free, wild, undamned and beautiful. So for thirty-seven years I have been forced to witness the gradual destruction of this land by commercial greed, by a blind brutal industrialism which cares for nothing but corporate profits and leaves here, as it did in my native Appalachia, ravaged hills and an embittered people.
Finally, the matter of Moab the town. On this point I truly feel apologetic. When I said in that TV interview that Moab was “ugly,” I was referring to the commercial strip which runs through the heart of it — the Atlas mill and slime pit, the cobweb of powerlines, the sheet-metal warehouses, and so on — not to the old residential areas, which are as lovely as any such in any other American town. I don’t object to junkyards; junkyards are fascinating. And I have lived in enough trailer houses myself to know that with a little care an immobilized mobile home can be made as pretty as any $150,000 house on a hill. Usually prettier. More important, there are many beautiful people living in Moab, some of whom are friendly acquaintances and a few of whom are old good reliable friends of mine.
The one thing about Moab (and southeast Utah) which is truly ugly is the climate of hate and intimidation, created by a noisy few, which makes the decent majority reluctant to air in public their views on anything controversial. This is bad for Moab, bad for Utah, bad for the future of democracy. Where all pretend to be thinking alike, it’s likely that no one is thinking at all. Diversity of opinion must be welcomed, even encouraged, if Moab is to achieve the one kind of growth it needs — moral growth — and become a beautiful small city in a sweet green valley worthy of that which surrounds it: the most magnificent landscape on planet Earth.
Cheers! Edward Abbey
© Richard Whittaker
Tom H. Watkins, Editor, Wilderness,
The Wilderness Society, Washington, D.C.
18 May 1987
I am surprised by your letter of May 14th: does that mean you will not print my rebuttal to Wendell Berry? If not, please return it and I’ll peddle it elsewhere. Nevertheless, I am surprised. If you won’t give me a chance to reply to Berry, then you should ask Stegner or A.B. Guthrie or somebody to do it. You’re going to have a lot of unhappy members in the WS if you leave the impression that Berry’s Gifford Pinchot view of the world is the official ideology of the Wilderness Society. I’ve heard half a dozen people complain about it.
Too bad Krutch is not still alive. Maybe you should reprint his essay “Conservation Is Not Enough.” Meaning, of course, that “stewardship” is not enough. Or almost anything from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac would serve as proper rejoinder to Berry.
I should not have to repeat myself in this letter, but I will: Simply because humankind have the power now to meddle or “manage” or “exercise stewardship” in every nook and cranny of the world does not mean that we have a right to do so. Even less, the obligation. In principle, there is nothing in Berry’s essay that would disturb Watt, Hodel or Reagan: they too believe in “wise use” or “stewardship”; they too believe that overpopulation is a myth; they too believe in the antique Hebrew doctrine that everything on earth was placed here for the convenience and appetite of humans.
Berry is a farmer. His notion of wilderness, as he says, is a weedy fencerow between plowed fields. He is not really interested in the idea of large-scale, regional wilderness and never has been. He makes a strange spokesman indeed for an organization that calls itself The Wilderness Society. If his views are now the views of the Society’s present management, then I prefer to disaffiliate. Please return my essay, if you’re not going to publish it, and also my $100 [contribution].
Sincerely, Edward Abbey
Wendell Berry, Port Royal, Kentucky
24 May 1987
Attached is a copy of a letter I wrote to T.H. Watkins at Wilderness magazine in attempted rebuttal of parts of your argument in your essay “Preserving Wildness.” As you will see, I disagree sharply with some of your opinions, a reaction, I’m sure, that will not surprise you, any more than I was in any way surprised by what you wrote. Nothing in your essay is at all inconsistent with many essays on similar subjects that you’ve written before. What did surprise me was seeing your views presented as more or less approved Wilderness Society doctrine.
Anyway — this is all a laborious preamble to my real question: Do you think I am unfair to you or to your words in my response? For the sake of brevity, I dispensed with the usual fraternal amenities etc, and as is my habit, pursued my various points with what I like to think of as “vigor” but others call “harshness.” Watkins, in his letter back, accused me of being “plain not fair” to you. Perhaps I was. If you think so, I would be happy to revise the piece, or throw it away, before trying to get it published anywhere. I was hoping Watkins would offer to publish it in Wilderness, but I guess he won’t.
So, let me know what you think, if you care to trouble yourself about this. I would not want to risk endangering the kind of feelings you’ve shown me in the past for the sake of mere polemical spleen. Your friendship is far more important to me than striving to win points in a formal debate.
Fraternally, Ed A.
16 December 1987
Dear Mr. Chase:
Saw your reply to my letter in the January Outside. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Such cowardly and dishonest weaseling. You’re supposed to be an educated man; you know very well that sabotage and terrorism are two widely different things. Any dictionary makes the distinction clear; the public knows very well what “terrorism” means, tho’ probably not familiar with the word “sabotage.” But you know the difference and therefore your attempt to defame and slander the brave young men and women of Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Society by calling them “eco-terrorists” is intellectually dishonest and morally base.
This kind of sloppy language, whether employed through ignorance or — as in your case — through an intent to discredit, is exactly the kind of thing that puts you media people in such an unfavorable light in popular opinion. You are no better, in that respect, than the dogmatic leftists and doctrinaire liberals who call me a “racist” or “fascist” or “genocidal elitist” because I happen to oppose mass immigration into the USA. Irrational name-calling in place of rational argument — the ad hominem approach — tends to reduce all public discourse to the level of Trotskyites and John Birchers screaming at each other at a Berkeley street fair.
Shame. If you were a man, or even merely a gentleman, you would have the decency to apologize to Dave Foreman and Paul Watson — and to the readers of Outside for attempting to insult their intelligence.
If you ever come to the Tucson area, give me a call; it would be a pleasure to say these things to you face to face.
12 February 1988
To the Editor:
Left-wing dogmatists like Carlos (Conrad G.?) Portela think I’m a right-winger (“fascist! sexist! racist!”) because I oppose immigration and massive taxpayer-funded nursing for the terminally sick. The right-wing dogmatists think I’m a left-winger (“terrorist! anarchist! bleeding-heart liberal!”) because I oppose Washington’s murderous policies in Latin America and because I’m against humankind’s planetary war on Nature.
What neither wing can grasp is that the bird of truth — like the falcon! the eagle! the yellow-bellied sapsucker! — flies on two wings. Not one. Two.
“The hero of my tale,” wrote Tolstoy in his memoirs of the battle at Sevastople, “is truth.” This is a notion beyond the rigid ideologies of both our political Right and Left. Enraptured by their visions of Heaven in Space or Heaven on Earth, neither faction has time to concern itself with anything so crass and vulgar as experiential, verifiable, irrefragable, empiric fact. It’s an old and common human failing; we must be . . . understanding.
1 October 1988
I thank you for the kind words about my books in your September 1988 issue. As a life-long admirer of the IWW and its traditions, I am honored to be mentioned in your publication. However — please let me clarify what your columnist “Lobo X99” calls my “peculiar views” on immigration.
As I have said and written many times, in many places, I am opposed to all further mass immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, and my reasons for this position are quite conventional. Like all Earth First!ers, almost all environmentalists, most union members and even (according to polls) the majority of blacks and Hispanics, I think we should seal our borders for the following good, clear and obvious reasons:
(1) the USA is overcrowded already;
(2) a large influx of cheap labor — docile, uneducated and desperate foreigners — will put bona fide native-born (or naturalized) American working people at further disadvantage in their struggle with big business and big government;
(3) a growing population means greater pressure on all resources, including clean air, clean water, clean soil, open space, schools, medical facilities, wildlife, wilderness and our public lands in general;
(4) a growing population leads inevitably to more government, more laws, regulations, police, centralized control, authoritarian policies and a generalized stifling of personal freedom for all but the very rich.
PS: Check enclosed; renew my sub and keep the change.
Miss D’Angelo, Editor, MIT Student Newspaper
12 December 1988
Dear Miss D’Angelo:
Tough and interesting questions. I’ll try to answer some of them as best I can, quickly, in order to get this back to you today.
Q.#1: To the Technocrats: Have mercy on us. Relax a bit, take time out for simple pleasures. For example, the luxuries of electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, instant electronic communication and such, have taught me to relearn and enjoy the basic human satisfactions of dipping water from a cold clear mountain stream; of building a wood fire in a cast-iron stove; of using long winter nights for making music, making things, making love; of writing long letters, in longhand with a fountain pen, to the few people on this earth I truly care about.
Q.#3: The ugliest thing in America is greed, the lust for power and domination, the lunatic ideology of perpetual Growth — with a capital G. “Progress” in our nation has for too long been confused with “Growth”; I see the two as different, almost incompatible, since progress means, or should mean, change for the better — toward social justice, a livable and open world, equal opportunity and affirmative action for all forms of life. And I mean all forms, not merely the human. The grizzly, the wolf, the rattlesnake, the condor, the coyote, the crocodile, whatever, each and every species has as much right to be here as we do.
Therefore, we must limit and then reduce human population (by humane means, for Christ’s sake, birth control, etc.) so as to allow time for our fellow living beings to recover their fair share of living space. A world without huge regions of total wilderness would be a cage; a world without lions and tigers and vultures and snakes and elk and bison would be — will be — a human zoo. A high-tech slum.
Q.#4: Most of human history consists of tribal warfare. In this recent North American incident the Indians lost to the invading Europeans. What do you want me to do about it? I’ll go back to Europe if the Indians will all go back to Siberia. The best thing we can do for the American Indians is to stop feeling sorry for them; the best thing they can do for themselves is to stop wallowing in self-pity, display some grit and gumption, begin facing up to their problems (too many babies, too much alcohol, too much welfare, too much self-hatred) and stop waiting for the Federal government to solve everything for them.
In one way at least, the Indians are better off than most of the rest of us: they have their inalienable reservations, a land base, a true home. Let them begin from there.
Q.#5: The Fool’s Progress is a picaresque comedy about life and death, work and play, love and marriage — with a happy ending. I mention these obvious points only because a few reviewers (a simple and literal-minded lot, generally speaking) seem unable to grasp them. Other than that, the novel speaks for itself. It’s the best work I’ve been able to do so far and perhaps the best I’ll ever do.
Q.#6: What is my favorite among my books? They are all my children; but I will confess to a special fondness for the novels Good News and Black Sun, i.e., the futuristic fantasy and the wilderness love story.
Q.#7: Whom do I nominate, among American writers, for the Nobel Prize? Easy: Lewis Mumford for literature (The City in History, The Myth of the Machine, The Pentagon of Power, etc.), David Brower for peace (he has devoted his life in the attempt to stop humankind’s savage war against the natural world) and Noam Chomsky for science — and political truth.
Q.#8: What is the essence of the art of writing? Part One: Have something to say. Part Two: Say it well.
Q.#9: How do I feel about The War Between The Sexes? I love it. I’m in favor of it. Women and men must share everything eventually, including a common fate; but meanwhile, it is the poignant difference between them which creates the tension and the delight. There is nothing that bores me so much as androgyny — manlike women and womanlike men.
Q.#10: Does the human race deserve a final chance? Considering what we’ve done to each other and to life in general during the past five thousand years, I’m tempted to say that we do not. But I am the father of two small children. The children are innocent until proven guilty. For their sake, not ours, we must soldier on, muddling our way toward frugality, simplicity, liberty, community, until some kind of sane and rational balance is achieved between our ability to love and our cockeyed ambition to conquer and dominate everything in sight. No wonder the galaxies recede from us in every direction, fleeing at velocities that approach the speed of light. They are frightened. We humans are the Terror of the Universe.
Meanwhile, good luck to all of you. (Within reason.)
Edward Abbey writes, to the editor of a student newspaper, “What is the essence of the art of writing? Part one: Have something to say. Part two: Say it well.”
Great advice, but hard to do most times. Abbey fought the good fight until he died in 1989. Who among us will stand up in his place? What must we do to be heard when the applause has died, when it is all just voices stilled — or, at least, it appears that way? Poets try their dead level best to illuminate, to be heard, but does anyone have the time now? Self-absorption is so much more entertaining.
Soon we will all join Abbey over the “Great Divide.” Perhaps it will be clear to us then what he saw. We should look forward to the conversation.
In the January 2007 Correspondence Bill Johnson points out that Edward Abbey drove a gas-guzzling Buick (he didn’t mention the Ford pickups) and spawned too many children (so did Al Gore). Abbey’s faults were more glaring and public than most, and anyone who has read his work already knows them well. But Johnson is wrong to say that Abbey was counterproductive. Just ask the thousands of readers he has influenced, even years after his death.
Abbey told ugly truths when nobody else would, and like nobody else can. Of course we need the Bill McKibbens of the world to speak out calmly and rationally and attempt to sway those who are inclined to listen and intelligent enough to understand. But when an ignorant, sleazy asshole builds another senseless “development,” we need people like Abbey to call him an ignorant, sleazy asshole. Abbey’s vitriol was often (not always) appropriate and necessary, and it sprang from his deep love for our little planet.
Reading Edward Abbey [“Sincerely, Edward Abbey,” October 2006] and Bill McKibben side by side in the same issue of The Sun was a useful study in contrasts. I have just two questions about Abbey: (1) Why did this staunch proponent of negative population growth father two additional children in his final marriage? And (2) did he really drive around in that gas-guzzling old Buick that appears in the accompanying photograph? (Perhaps he was en route to deposit it in the Mariana Trench.)
Abbey’s barbs aimed at religion, mysticism, land management, stewardship, SUVs, and even dogmatic science serve only to undermine the patient dialogue and coalition-building we need to solve our environmental crisis. I don’t disagree with the Earth First! approach entirely; sometimes a swift kick in the pants is justified, if only to grab some press coverage. But the likely response by those in power will be to dig their heels in deeper.
McKibben manages to shake the foundations just as much, but does so in a measured, diplomatic, and I dare say optimistic style. This — and not Abbey’s vitriol — is what will eventually persuade people to beat their swords into plowshares.